“Birdsongs for Eric”; Paying homage to Eric Dolphy and his legacy

Dolphy freedom 2On Friday May 30th 7PM-10:30PM, and Saturday May 31 5PM-10:30PM, the festival Eric Dolphy: Freedom of Sound will take place at the Memorial Auditorium at Montclair State University, Montclair, NJ. My new work, “Birdsongs for Eric” will premiere on the Friday night program with Marty Ehrlich-flute, Anton Denner-flute, Ken Filiano-bass, Michael Sarin-drums, myself on piano and featuring Howard Johnson on bass clarinet.

World-renowned drummer Pheeoran Aklaff and Seed Artists Advisory Board member Chris Napierala conceived this festival, and a call for action for this event was answered by Trae Bodge, Luz Marina Bueno, Veronica Nunn, Charles Martin, Michael Schreiber, Kamillah Aklaff, Wiliam Scheckle and yours truly. We started meeting and planning for this in early summer 2013 and have had many others who have stepped forward to help including: Christopher Drukker, Natalia Bernal and Africa Lake. Dolphy Chuck StewartThere have been many artist advisers who have lent their talents including the Jazz photographer Chuck Stewart who let us use his iconic photo of Eric Dolphy, and visual artist Peter Bodge who created a linoleum cut print based on that photograph and now graces the posters and t-shirts for the event.

At the outset of our planning meetings, we talked a lot about the direction we wanted to take with respect to Eric Dolphy’s music, and agreed that playing his music and creating new music inspired by him would be the route we would go. When we began contacting musicians about participating, everyone said yes! As a result, we have an incredibly diverse two nights of music, something I think Dolphy would have absolutely loved, because that’s where his heart and soul lived. The festival name, Freedom of Sound comes from his 1962 interview with Leonard Feather for Downbeat Magazine…”Well it – it – you see, some things like you play are not based on chords, they’re based on freedom of sound, you start with one line and you keep inventing as you go along, line-wise – “. I particularly like his quote from another interview with Leonard Feather for Downbeat Magazine, this time alongside John Coltrane ;” Music is a reflection of everything, and it’s universal.”
This quote from Eric Dolphy propelled me into the direction I decided to take; “It somehow comes in as part of the development of what I’m doing. Sometimes I can’t do it. At home (in California), I used to play, and the birds always used to whistle with me. I would stop what I was working on and play with the birds… Birds have notes in between our notes – you try to imitate something they do and, like, maybe it’s between F and F#, and you’ll have to go up or come down on the pitch…Indian music has something of the same quality – different scales and quarter tones.” I read that and felt that I had met a soul mate composer, because since 2008, I’ve composed music with a variety of bird songs for many different ensemble configurations and for solo piano, and am continuing to explore that fascinating subject.

For my piece, I started with researching and transcribing Dolphy’s flute improvisations that included bird songs, and quickly discovered that bird songs pop up on all of the instruments he played. My favorite flute/bird song improv is from the beginning of “Ode To Charlie Parker” which you can hear on his “Far Cry” album with trumpeter Booker Little, pianist Jaki Byard (one of my teachers), bassist Ron Carter and drummer Roy Haynes. Then I researched the area in Los Angeles where Dolphy grew up and found an Audubon Society about 9 minutes from his childhood home in the Ernest E. Debs Park, a huge L.A. county park. On their website, they had a list of birds that have been sighted at the park, with facts such as: common, uncommon, transient, resident, and so on. Then, I went to the ebird website, where you can put in an address and see a map of the hotspots of bird sightings from all over the world. Each hotspot has a record of not only each bird that has been sighted, but how many times as well. I put in the address of his childhood home, crossed referenced all of those lists and came up with the birds that I thought were the most likely to have been in and around his neighborhood, and then narrowed those down to the ones that I thought he mimicked and the ones that I favored. My list included: Black Phoebe, Anna’s Hummingbird, Bushtit, Northern Mockingbird, European Starling, Cedar Waxwings, Warbling Vireo, Mourning Dove, Townsend Warbler, Northern Flicker, Allen’s Hummingbird, Killdeer, Great Tailed Grackle, Northern Pintail, Yellow Warbler, Hermit Thrush, Western Kingbird, Savannah Sparrow, Lark Sparrow and Orange Crowned Warbler. I then went to the Mccaulay Library, a division of the Cornel University Lab of Ornithology and listened to each one of these birds and recorded them. Then I narrowed down the list a little more, and transcribed the remaining birds. Now I had a huge amount of bird song material to work with for the piece.

Dolphy fluteI thought a lot about Dolphy’s diverse musical activities, and imagined where he might have ended up today. I think he would have continued to explore music from around the world, electronic music, and would most likely compose for chamber ensembles and orchestras. I also thought a lot about the musicians in my ensemble and their improvisational vocabulary, and especially Howard Johnson, who I would be featuring in the piece.

The best description I have for this new piece would be this; part Chamber Jazz, part bird song, part modal harmonic progression, part free improv, with elements of Latin Jazz and Indian Ragas. The piece evolves from a phrase that I developed, while thinking about Howard Johnson and his vocabulary, and then infusing that with some of Dolphy’s birdsong improvisations and my own bird song improvisations. There are places in the piece where it is very straight ahead, but then there are places where it really opens up and ‘takes flight”.

I am so grateful to these musicians for working on and performing this new piece. Each one brings their unique talents and vocabulary and lots of great energy to bring this piece to life. I shared a story about my composing process with the ensemble at our rehearsal the other day. I had taken a break from working, and decided to sit out in the backyard and listen to my recorded improvisations, with headphones on. As soon as I turned on my digital recorder and the music came though the headphones, a flock of sparrows came into the yard, flying around, singing away, and a robin landed not 2 feet away from me. This robin would quickly come towards me and stop, and look at me, then he would take a few steps back and stop and listen to the ground, that’s how they find the earthworms. Then he would come to me and again and go back. This went on for some time, the sparrows continued to sing, a few pigeons and starlings showed up, along with the squirrels who are tireless acrobats and I might add, highly entertaining. When the music was over, they all left. I felt like they had just given me their “call” of approval, it was very inspiring.

The line-up for Friday May 30th : a duo with drummers Andrew Cyrille and Pheeroan Aklaff, a duo with bassist Richard Davis and multi-reedist Marty Ehrlich, this time on bass clarinet, performing never-heard-before- Dolphy compositions, Russ Johnson’s Still Out To Lunch ensemble with Russ Johnson-trumpet, Roy Nathanson-alton sax, Orrin Evans-piano, Brad Jone-drums and George Schuller-drums playing arrangements of Dolphy tunes, multi-reedist and composer Henry Threadgill in duo with pianist David Virelles, vocalist Veronica Nunn with bassist Sean Conly, my group as mentioned above, Don Byron-solo bass clarinet, and The Dolphy Bass Clarinet Quartet featuring Howard Johnson, Marty Ehrlich, Don Byron and Oscar Noriega playing new music inspired by Dolphy.

The line-up for Saturday May 31st begins with a symposium entitled “Eric Dolphy: Architect of Possibility” moderated by flutist/composer James Newton with panelists bassist Richard Davis, composer Gunther Schuller with scholars John Szwed and Michael E. Veal.

The music program for May 31st: “To Eric: Works by Hale Smith” arranged by bassist/composer Chris White featuring Adegoke Steve Colson-piano, Pheeoran Aklaff-drums, Jerome Harris-guitar, Andy McKee-bass and Jun Miyake-tenor sax, the Tarbaby Group led by alto saxophonist Oliver Lake with Orrin Evans-piano, Nasheet Waits-drums and Luques Curtis-bass, the Richard Davis group with drummer Andrew Cyrille, pianist Angelica Sanchez, and violinist Aska Kaneko, the Tomeka Reid (cellist) group with dancer Beatrice Capote and drummer Andrew Cyrille, poet Michael E. Harper, a duo with guitarist Vernon Reid and drummer Andrew Cyrille plus guests, trombonist Grachan Moncur III, and ending the program will be The Sound of Freedom Ensemble conducted by flutist James Newton with trombonist Alfred Patterson, drummer Pheeroan Aklaff, guitarist Jerome Harris, vibraphonist Jay Hoggard, bassist Andy McKee, tenor saxophonists James Brandon Lewis and Jun Miyake.